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The plot thickens in Hollywood union election

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Leo Reed has been a professional football player, a police officer and bodyguard to Sylvester Stallone.

But he is best known in Hollywood as the leader of Teamsters Local 399, the powerful union representing 4,500 studio transportation coordinators, location managers, casting directors, animal wranglers and drivers who haul stars, props and equipment to film and TV sets.

Reed, the undisputed leader of Local 399 for nearly 25 years, now faces his first serious challenge in what is widely acknowledged as an unusually close and deeply divisive election to select the next secretary-treasurer of the union.

Members are casting votes in the contest, which provides a rare glimpse into a real Hollywood drama playing out behind the camera. 

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Reed's challenger is Steve Dayan, who said he was fired from his job as a Teamsters business agent in July after he told his boss he wanted to run against him. Dayan has portrayed Reed, 74, as an out-of-touch leader who runs the local as if it were his personal fiefdom. He cites Reed's hiring of two relatives, including his son for a job that federal records show paid him nearly $174,313 last year in salary and expenses.

"Leo has got to leave," Dayan, 56, told drivers working a location shoot in Griffith Park recently. "We've got to push him out the door because he's not making good decisions on our members' behalf. He's more concerned about his family than he is about the local."

Reed, who is seeking his ninth three-year term, has portrayed Dayan and his supporters as "traitors" who are "pro-management" and support lowering wages, comments posted on Reed's website that Dayan says are untrue.

"He is desperate and is he is trying anything just to win the election," Reed says on his campaign website, which also includes an endorsement from Teamsters General President James P. Hoffa. 

The drama behind the election, results of which will be announced Oct. 15, is the talk of film sets across Hollywood.

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Tensions boiled over recently at a union meeting of more than 500 members at Pickwick Gardens Conference Center in Burbank. A scuffle erupted after transportation coordinator Marlo Hellerstein criticized Reed for his union hiring practices, Hellerstein and other witnesses said.

Hellerstein hadn't finished speaking before one of Reed's associates gave a hand signal to a muscular sergeant of arms — who promptly pulled Hellerstein away from the microphone, Hellerstein, Dayan and others present said.

"All of a sudden I turned to my right and here's this giant grabbing my arm and pulling me backwards," Hellerstein said. "All hell broke loose."

Reed declined to comment. "Leo doesn't give interviews," said Joe Kaplon, Local 399's attorney. "He's standing on his track record." 

Reed, born and raised on Oahu's North Shore, has a size and competitive nature that led him to excel while playing football for Colorado State, and later the Houston Oilers and the Denver Broncos.

When his professional football career ended, Reed joined the Honolulu Police Department, where his brawn — he once told colleagues he could bench-press 500 pounds — made him an intimidating presence.

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Reed later joined the Teamsters in Hawaii and moved to Hollywood in 1980, where he worked as a bodyguard for Stallone and drove a truck on film sets. He joined Local 399, and within nine years was elected top officer of the union.

His predecessor, Earl Bush, was charged by a court-appointed officer in 1991 with embezzling at least $16,200 from Local 399. The charge was later dropped and Bush resigned from the union as part of a settlement of an investigation into corruption allegations against Michael J. Riley, the highest-ranking Teamsters official in Southern California. Charges against Riley were also dropped. 

"He came in at a time when we were in a terrible disarray,'' said Jordan Edelman, a studio driver who now supports Dayan. "He was our savior."

Reed also gained the respect of his crew for standing up for their rights, including getting "Baywatch" producers to back down from a demand for a wage cut as the TV series moved from Los Angeles to Hawaii in 1999.

In Los Angeles, Reed also is credited with keeping the peace. The last major strike was a walkout by drivers in 1988. He cites other accomplishments, such as expanding the union's coverage to cable television and commercial production and growing its pension plan.

But Dayan says Reed hasn't done enough to organize in the burgeoning area of digital media or lobbied hard enough to boost California's film incentives. 

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Dayan also has questioned Reed's judgment, including hiring his son, Leo Reed Jr., as a business agent in 2011. Dayan said the younger Reed had worked in the business only a few years as a driver and was not qualified for the job that last year paid him a salary of $148,619 and $25,694 for official expenses — slightly more than Dayan's total pay in 2012, according to the union's annual filing with the U.S. Labor Department.

"That concerned me and it concerned a lot of our members, because it indicated to me a desire for Leo to put his son in his position,'' Dayan said of Leo Reed Jr.'s hiring.

The union also hired the elder Reed's niece, Tulima Tuanaki, in the same year as an administrative assistant, a job that paid her a total of $89,330 last year, according to federal Labor Department filings. Reed's total pay, including expenses, was $261,760 in 2012, while longtime union President Tony Cousimano received $212,371, records show.

Dayan, a former location manager who has been a business agent and organizer with the Teamsters since 1999, contends the union couldn't afford the hirings. He cites Labor Department filings that show the union's net assets declined nearly $1 million from January 2010 to December 2012. 

Reed has denied having plans to groom his son for his job and said he has protected members from union dues increases.

Dayan also has criticized Reed's 2011 hiring of George Nadian as a business agent. Last year, Nadian received $187,203, including a salary of $147,694 and $39,509 in disbursements for official business, according to the Labor Department filing.

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Dayan and his supporters say Nadian filed frivolous grievances against employers, who often make payments to the union to settle violations of union rules.

"George was filing a lot of grievances and upsetting a lot of employers," Dayan said. "I'm all for enforcing the contract, but he was just looking for damages."

Nadian, a former transportation captain, defended his tenure. "The only thing I did is do my job and fight for the membership harder than anybody else,'' he said. "I'm one of those guys who can see things that other members don't see and how our members are being screwed."

Nadian recently resigned from the union after disclosures that he and Leo Reed Jr. received more than $800,000 from the union's insurance carrier stemming from an accident on the 101 Freeway on Aug. 24, 2011. 

The men were rear-ended by a driver who fled the scene, according to a California Highway Patrol report on the accident. Reed's Dodge Charger "sustained minor right rear damage as a result of this collision consisting of dents and scratches to the right rear bumper," the report states. No one was hospitalized, according to the police report.

But in a letter posted on the elder Reed's website, an attorney for his son and Nadian said the men had sustained "significant injuries" and needed spinal surgery to repair herniated discs. An arbitrator ultimately approved an award of $830,000 to settle the claim, according to Dayan, who said he viewed a copy of the arbitration award at the union's office.

Dayan said the matter should have been reported to the union's membership. Nadian recently filed a wrongful-termination lawsuit against the union and Dayan, alleging they improperly disclosed private information.

In a statement on his website, Reed said the men were exercising their rights and dismissed Dayan's claim as "nothing more than a political attempt to discredit my administration."

richard.verrier@latimes.com 

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